BEIJING — Burma’s historic general elections and signs of a landslide victory for backers of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have raised some uncomfortable questions in giant northern neighbor China.
The first is how China’s Communist Party rulers will manage to get along with a civilian-led government in Burma after decades of backing military rule in Burma.
But a second question, perhaps less expected, has bubbled up from Chinese people themselves in the past few days. If the Burmese can have democracy, some ask, why can’t we?
Sun Liping, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University was among the first to question the official line that Western-style democracy was simply not appropriate for China at its current level of development.
“Actually, democracy is a normal way for a normal society to behave,” he posted on the Sina Weibo microblogging service, according to Washington-based Radio Free Asia.
“It’s a way of life that allows for human nature. Just because grown-ups told kids in the past not to talk and eat at the same time, doesn’t mean that talking and eating are incompatible.”
The post was retweeted more than 2,000 times in a few minutes, Radio Free Asia reported, and prompted a lively debate between supporters and opponents of one-party rule — itself unusual on China’s increasingly heavily censored social media.
“They voted one by one,” wrote lawyer Li Fangping, in another widely retweeted post in reference to Sunday’s vote in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
“You can see they are smiling. Do Burmese qualify better than the Chinese? As we all know, Burma’s GDP, middle class, literacy rate and transportation facilities are all worse than China.”
Another weibo user sarcastically remarked that yet another country “had stepped on the ‘evil’ path of freedom, democracy and happiness.”
Some of that debate can still be seen online, although Sun’s original post seems to have vanished, while searches for Burma have now been blocked by Sina Weibo.
China, of course, is not about to see any popular uprising in favor of democracy or even democratic reforms. The Communist Party’s propaganda machine appears to have convinced most people this would only lead to instability, and that one-party rule remains in their best interests.
The security apparatus, meanwhile, has left no doubt that any such uprising would be mercilessly crushed — warnings that took on added urgency during last year’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
But the fact that the question flared anew was a surprise to Fan Hongwei, a professor at the School of Southeast Asian Studies in Xiamen University, who has just returned from observing the Burmese elections.
“Chinese people are interested in Burma’s election because it debunks the myth that democracy is unsuitable for some countries,” he said. “Burma is even poorer than China and its education level is lower, but it transformed to democracy peacefully. Chinese people wonder why China couldn’t do this. They envy the Burmese.”
The Chinese government sent a delegation to observe the elections in Burma, and welcomed the fact that they had proceeded “smoothly.”
“As a friendly neighbor, the Chinese side supports Myanmar in pressing ahead with its political agenda in accordance with the law after the election so as to realize national stability and long-term growth,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news conference on Monday.
During military rule, China accounted for the lion’s share of foreign investment in Burma, and most of its arms imports. But its backing of the military junta, its relentless extraction of Burma’s natural resources and its apparent lack of concern for locals made it extremely unpopular with many Burmese.
Relations suddenly turned sour under the military-backed government of President Thein Sein, who introduced democratic reforms but simultaneously exploited nationalist sentiment by taking a much tougher line with China.
The construction of a huge Chinese dam on the Irrawaddy River was suspended, and as sanctions were lifted, Burma increasingly began looking toward the United States, Europe, Japan and India for investment.
Popular distrust of the Chinese government will not disappear overnight, said Xiamen University’s Fan, while trust also needs to be rebuilt between the two governments.
“Chinese authorities are uncertain about the future of the China-Burma relationship, because they haven’t built mutual trust” with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, he said. “NLD is a party with distinct ideological preference, and it shares Western values. The Chinese government is concerned that [Suu Kyi’s] election will affect Chinese interests in Burma.”
The nationalist Global Times newspaper said this week that the change of power in Burma would not hurt ties with China, but it simultaneously warned the country not move closer to the United States.
“No observer deems that Myanmar will completely tilt toward the U.S., as such a witless move would ruin the strategic space and resources it can obtain from China's amicable policies,” it wrote in an editorial.
The Chinese Communist Party, however, has not been sitting still in the run-up to the elections.
In June, it invited Burma’s opposition leader Suu Kyi to visit Beijing and rolled out the red carpet. In turn, she reportedly reassured Beijing’s leaders she was keen to maintain friendly ties.
Sean Turnell, an associate professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, said that “somewhat surprisingly,” the election results would actually be welcomed in Beijing — partly because relations had fallen to such a low ebb under Thein Sein’s rule.
“Over the last little while I think China realized that it had blundered, and set about trying to improve their image, and in establishing relations with the opposition,” he said, citing the “head of state” treatment given to Suu Kyi on her visit to Beijing.
“In short, although [Suu Kyi] and the NLD have excellent connections with the West, relations with China will also improve along the way I think,” he wrote in an e-mail from Burma.
Xu Jing contributed to this report.